Mao’s Last Dancer

Posted on May 7, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Director Bruce Beresford, best known for “Driving Miss Daisy,” returns to the themes of cross-cultural connections in this film based on the memoir of Chinese ballet star Li Cunxin.

Li (Chinese surnames appear first) was taken from his poor, rural family at age 11 to study ballet. Madame Mao had declared the arts to be a priority and officials were sent to the furthest reaches of the country to find children who could be trained. Li succeeds more through determination than passion or natural ability, and despite Madame Mao’s insistence on ballet performances based more on political messages than on art. His family (with the radiant Joan Chen as his mother) is very proud of his contribution to China.In 1979, in the early, fragile days of US-China diplomatic relations, Li is sent to spend some time as a guest trainee with the Houston ballet, led by Ben Stevenson (the always-superb Bruce Greenwood).

His English is poor. His understanding of anything other than what he has been told by the Chinese authorities is non-existent. The Americans’ ability to understand him is not much better. But there is the common language of dance. And there Li is so dazzling he is quickly given an opportunity to perform in a key role on stage. The audience loves him.Li does not want to go home. He becomes romantically involved with a tender-hearted young dancer. He appreciates the opportunity to perform without regard to the political content of the ballet. He consults a lawyer (a crafty Kyle MacLachlan). He takes a very big risk for himself and also for those who have befriended him.The film feels episodic and oddly understated and remote. That may be in part because the key role of Li is divided between three actors, Wen Bin Huang as a child, Chengwu Guo as a teenager, and Chi Cao as an adult. Or, it may be because Li the character is reserved by nature and training and something of a cipher. But like its title character, the movie comes alive in the ballet performances, which are well-staged and convey not only the creative energy of their own story-telling but the ultimate expression of the performers’ passion for their art.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language for a PG and a brief nightmare scene of people being executed. Characters drink and smoke and there are sexual references including a discussion of virginity. The scenes of Li’s treatment in China may be disturbing for some viewers.Topics for discussion: What was the most important reason that Li wanted to stay in America? What was most important to Ben? How should the Americans and Chinese have handled it?If you like this try: the book, Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cuxin, and other ballet-related films like “The Turning Point” and “The Company.”

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Based on a book Based on a true story Biography Drama Music Romance

6 Replies to “Mao’s Last Dancer”

  1. I saw this film at a screening last week. LOVED IT!!! So did the rest of the audience. It is nice to see ballet at the center of a story. We were all crying at one particular scene (which I won’t describe as it would be a spoiler for those who have yet to see the film).
    Bruce Greenwood spoke to us after the screening and was extremely nice and talkative. It is amazing that they figured out a way (through much difficulty) to actually film in China the scenes of Li Cunxin’s early life. The dancer (he had never acted before this) who plays Cunxin as an adult is beautiful to watch. His father was one of Cunxin’s teachers in Beijing.
    I think that one of the reasons the movie has a remote or understated feel to it is that Cunxin lived a very bottled up and propaganda force-fed life prior to coming to the US. Forced to leave his family by the government & sent to the Art Academy (just because his body ‘looked’ like it was maybe made to dance) at a very young age and never allowed to express feelings or emotions out loud to his teachers. He and everyone around him were raised very emotionally repressed (or face punishment or ejection from the academy and the resulting humiliation for the entire family).
    I really hope a lot of people go to see this film.

  2. Thanks so much, Janine! What a great comment. I’m so glad Bruce Greenwood appeared at the screening you saw. He is one of my favorite actors. Your comment about the movie’s “remoteness” is very astute and of course Li’s repressed emotions only make the dance scenes even more powerful.

  3. Hi, Nell. This looks like a beautiful film. Normally, I don’t go to movies about ballet, but something about this film pulled me in. I definitely plan to see it.
    I’ve loved Bruce Greenwood since he appeared on a short-lived (not very good) television show in the 1990’s in which he as some kind of fugitive. Then I saw him in “The Sweet Hereafter” and couldn’t believe it was the same actor.
    Have you had a chance to see “Get Low” yet? I saw it last weekend and it was very good. I look forward to your review of it when you see it.

  4. Thanks, Alicia. I think you will like this film. They got permission to shoot in China (astonishing, when you consider the subject matter) and the scenes there are very striking.
    I haven’t seen “Get Low” yet, but am very intrigued by it. Glad to hear you liked it.

  5. Thanks, Nell. I read of that Robert Duvall got word that Horton Foote had just died while he was filming a scene in which he makes a coffin. He said it was fairly spooky.

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